Sunday, July 09, 2006

We're Still Never Going To Like Soccer

So, the world's biggest sporting event has come to an end. And, for the first time, I actually watched a lot of World Cup action this time around.

Now, I've always been a big fan of making fun of soccer. I've always scoffed at those who proclaimed that soccer was the favorite sport of "the rest of the world." I'm not really impressed by that; the rest of the world bathes where animals pee. Besides, if you look at any of the countries that have evolved past the point where it's difficult to starve to death if you live there -- us, Canada, Australia, Japan -- most of those countries have another Most Popular Sport.

But I think I've finally been won over. Not by soccer itself, mind you. But I've been won over by the spectacle of the World Cup. There are a couple of reasons...

First, it's the biggest sporting event on the planet, and I'm a sports fan. That's bound to catch up with you. I mean, I've always said that I could watch the championship of anything. I guess it doesn't particularly matter to me, as a sports fan, whether I actually care about the event in question; if the stakes are high enough, I'll watch. Like, I would never watch a regular season women's college basketball game unless I knew one of the players, but if the second half of the NCAA Women's Championship was on, and it was close, and there wasn't anything particularly enticing waiting in the TiVo, I'd have no problem watching for an hour.

Second, I've become a pretty big fan of playoff hockey (and, to a much lesser extent, regular season hockey) since the last World Cup in 2002, and, at least to this relatively uneducated viewer, the flow of the two games is similar. The way I watch them is similar. I think it took getting into hockey for me to be able to stand to watch soccer. Which is where I'm at right now the World Cup: I can stand to watch it. An entire match, even. Without getting bored. That's a huge step for me.

Still, I don't see my conversion from rabid anti-soccerite to almost-fan as a sign that The Beautiful Game is finally going to sweep the nation like soccer aficionados have spent the last 30 years predicting it will. To most American sports fans the World Cup may become a highly entertaining novelty event that we look forward to watching once in a while, like the Nathan's 4th of July hot dog eating contest, but I can't see Americans ever buying into soccer, really, in the foreseeable future. Here's why:

- The penalty kicks. Italy, a team that didn't concede a goal during the normal course of play in the entire World Cup tournament (they gave up an own goal versus the United States and France scored on a cheap penalty kick early in the final), could easily have lost on penalty kicks. Justice ultimately prevailed, but how can American sports fans possibly take seriously a "championship" decided by which direction a goaltender decides to guess to dive?

The other thing about the penalty kicks: there is no other world-class athletic feat that I, Joe Mulder, as I sit here relatively out of shape and 15 pounds overweight, could accomplish other than scoring on a penalty kick. If I swung at 100 pitches from John Smoltz, I would put zero into play. If I tried 100 times to tackle LaDainian Tomlinson, I would fail on every attempt. But I've never even played soccer in my life, and I would guess that I could consistently score on -- to give a rough estimate -- one out of six penalty kicks against the best soccer goalie in the world. If France had managed to win on penalty kicks, sure, the French would celebrate their biggest victory since Henri beat Sam Malone in the great Cheers phone number contest, but would anybody else who watched even a minute of the World Cup think even for a second that the French had the best team?

And look: I understand that the best team doesn't always necessarily win, and that's sometimes why sports are so thrilling (the US 1980 hockey team, Villanova, Buster Dougals, etc.). But when 30% (I just made that statistic up, but, still) of the games go to penalty kicks, and the Dartmouth University women's squad would basically have what amounts to a 50-50 chance against the best soccer team in the world on penalty kicks, it's hard to take it seriously as a legitimately important sporting event.

- The diving. At least now I can understand where Manu Ginobili and Vlade Divac were coming from. It's hard to blame them after watching these South American and European soccer players flopping all over the pitch. I'm not sure if we'll ever top the sight of Portugal's Luis Figo, who's evidently supposed to be one of the best players in the world, literally being carried off of on a stretcher and then hopping back off and returning to the game. Can you imagine if an American sports star tried that? Even in his home arena? The home fans would turn on him like the Soviet crowd turned on Drago in Rocky IV. And rightly so.

- America's best athletes don't play soccer. Brazil has 188 million people. Presumably, about half of them are males. And, we can guess that, say, 80% of them dream of growing up and playing in the World Cup some day. That's not the way it goes here. America has the best pure athletes in the world, but, for the most part, none of them play soccer. Just for fun, imagine what America's team would have looked like in, say, 1990 if everyone in this country grew up dreaming of winning the World Cup:

Randall Cunningham
Barry Sanders
Michael Jordan
Rickey Henderson
Danny Ainge (people forget: he played three seasons for the Blue Jays before going on to star with the Celtics. Plus, I wanted a white guy on the team)
Deion Sanders
Dominique Wilkins
Barry Bonds
Carl Lewis
Ozzie Smith

And then you stick, like, Patrick Ewing or somebody in goal. Pretty good, huh?

But American boys want to win the Super Bowl, or the NBA Finals, or the World Series, or, once in a while, maybe even the Stanley Cup.

So, yes. I can finally admit that the World Cup is fun to watch. I think more people starting to realize this. But that doesn't mean soccer will "catch on" in America. It's had 30+ years to do that. It hasn't, and it won't.

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